erik lundegaard

Movies - Box Office posts

Friday November 27, 2009

The 2000s: Decade of the Sequel

A few weeks back in the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott asked the following question:

The rebel Hollywood of the ’70s gives way to the blockbuster-mad ’80s, which is followed by the rise of the indies in the ’90s. And then?

And then Frodo and Spider-Man, Mumblecore and midbudget Oscar bait, Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Dark Knight” and the Transformers movies, along with everything else.

Which is more smorgasbord than answer. So let’s answer the question Scott wouldn’t. What were the 2000s to film? How did this decade differ from previous decades? How will it be remembered?

Here’s my quick-and-dirty answer: the 2000s were the decade of the sequel.

Yeah, I know. The sequel? What year are you stuck in, idjit—1978? Sequels have been the driving economic force for Hollywood for years, for decades, and you’re saying that now, suddenly, this decade, we’re in “The Era of the Sequel”? Get a clue!

Except I’m talking less about how many sequels were made than how well they performed. Sure, they’ve almost always performed well; that’s why they keep getting made. But this decade? They’ve performed really well.

Here’s a chart of no. 1 box-office hits of the year that were sequels, per decade, for the last 40 years:

1970s: 0
1980s: 2
1990s: 2
2000s: 7

The two no. 1 sequels in the 1980s both came from the “Star Wars” franchise: “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 and “The Return of the Jedi” in 1983. Ditto his prequel, “The Phantom Menace,” in 1999. The only non-“Star Wars” sequel to go no. 1 during this period was James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” in 1991.

So basically the only time a sequel reigned atop the annual box office chart from 1970 to 2000 was when it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

In 2002, Lucas’ second prequel, “Attack of the Clones,” actually became the first of the “Star Wars” movies not to be the year’s most popular movie. It finished third to both “Spider-Man” and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” So it seemed we were entering a new age.

We were. The following year, the sequel to “Two Towers,” “Return of the King,” was the biggest hit of the year, and it’s been sequels ever since:

2003: “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”
2004: “Shrek 2”
2005: “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”
2006: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”
2007: “Spider-Man 3”
2008: “The Dark Knight”
2009: “Transformers 2”

An argument can be made that this isn’t that big of a change. Sequels have gone from finishing second or fourth for the year to first. Big deal.

But it is different. Here’s how things used to work. Some new movie would come along and everyone would say, “Oh, dude, you gotta see this!” and everyone would go. These movies would become the no. 1 movies of the year: “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “Rocky,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Batman.” And, yes, all generated sequels. But with the exception of “Star Wars”—actually even including “Star Wars”—these sequels didn’t do as well at the box office. There was usually something original people wanted to see more.

No longer. Now the original film is merely a stepping stone to the vast wealth of the sequel. Sure, the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” made $363 million inflation-adjusted dollars in 2003, but the second made $464 million in 2006. Sure, the first “Shrek” made $339 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2001, but “Shrek 2” brought in $510 million in 2004. And, yes, “Batman Begins” made $230 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2005. Three years later, “The Dark Knight” brought home $533 million.

Instead of something original, we now want the same characters, doing the same thing, in a story that either improves upon the original (“The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man 2”) or doesn’t (“Spider-Man 3”: any of the “Pirates” sequels).

The question is why.

Part of it has to do with the way movies are rolled out now. Word-of-mouth means less, critics mean less, opening weekend means more. It’s a spectacle and people pay for the spectacle. Search the New York Times archive for the term “opening weekend” and for most of the 20th century you’ll get references to the “Wood, Field and Stream” columns of Raymond R. Camp. “Opening weekend” isn’t used to refer to the movies until 1980, in an article anticipating the release of the first “Star Wars” sequel. And opening weekends didn’t truly become currency until “Spider-Man” broke the $100 million opening-weekend mark in May 2002. That’s when even the average moviegoer took notice. Since then, Spidey’s record has been broken five times—all by sequels.

Movies are made differently now, too. Sequels are anticipated. They’re planned along with the originals. Sometimes they’re filmed along with the originals. The word “sequel” isn’t even effective anymore since we’re really dealing with four types, maybe more:

  1. The traditional sequel: These usually come out once every three years. Each film contains its own dramatic arc and more-or-less ends. Examples include the “Spider-Man” movies, the “Shrek” movies, “X-Men,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.
  2. The double-whammy sequel: Several years after the success of the original, these sequels are filmed together and released within a year of each other. Usually the second sequel is of the “to be continued” variety and everything’s tied up (more or less) with the third sequel. Examples include “Back to the Future,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Matrix.”
  3. The episodic sequel: These are often released every year. They’re based on popular books and follow the path of the books. Examples: “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” possibly “Lord of the Rings.”
  4. The “Wait! Let me squeeze out one more” sequel: Shows up 15 to 20 years after the last one, when the stars and/or director don’t have the options they once had, and are relying on past glories to resurrect careers. Examples: “Indiana Jones,” “Rocky” and “Rambo,” “The Godfather.”

Even if the studios are better at making and marketing sequels, however, it doesn't answer the question why are we going as often as we’re going? Because the studios are better at making and marketing sequels? Because theaters, and thus box office, are for blockbuster sequels, while the dramatic movies that don’t generate sequels are now for home viewing via PPV or Netflix? Because in the age of the Internet, we no longer see star-driven movies (“Forrest Gump,” “Jerry Maguire,” “As Good As It Gets”), or director-driven movies (Spielberg) but character-driven movies (Shrek, Batman, Harry Potter), which are easier to sequel-ize? Because after 9/11 we all became a bunch of wimps and just wanted daddy to tell us the same story over and over and over again?

All of the above?

No. 1 sequels used to be George Lucas’ province but now we’re all living in George’s world: special effects are everything, actors are nothing, things whiz by, the fun never stops. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we used to go to the movies to see how people behaved on the roller coaster ride. Now we go for the roller coaster ride. If it has people on it, even better.

Posted at 09:41 AM on Nov 27, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday November 23, 2009

The Lessons of a New Moon

So what lessons can we cull from the $140 million opening-weekend of “New Moon”—the third-highest opening ever, and the highest (by far) for a non-summer film? Twilight: New Moon (2009)Hint: It's not about the vampires and werewolves.

The biggest lesson is this: Quit ignoring girls. If you make a movie aimed at the sensibilities of teenage girls as much as “Star Wars” is aimed at the sensibilities of teenage boys, they will flock.

Here's a second, similar lesson: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. The Twilight series is trading on what made the most successful movies of all time (Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Titanic) successful. Those movies gave us a girl, choosing between two guys, against a backdrop of historic tragedy. The Twilight series just leaves out the backdrop of historic tragedy, and, rather than, say, Ashley and Rhett, or Leo and the other guy, this girl is choosing between a vampire and a werewolf. OK, so some things do change. 

Final lesson? Girls are just as dopey as boys. Maybe dopier.

(Psst: Transformers 2)

OK, not dopier.

Posted at 12:49 AM on Nov 23, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday November 20, 2009

The Biggest Movie of the 2000s Ranks Just Behind the Third-Biggest Movie of 1965

The good and bad of blogging is that there's always something to write about because there's always something online worth refuting. This is good because you always have a subject. This is bad because you always have a distraction from what you should be writing about.

Allow me to be distracted this morning.

I came across this HuffPost piece via, which, for some reason, thought it link-worthy. Danny Groner argues that the biggest hits of the decade are cartoonish, explosive granfalloons but the "Twilight" series is character-driven and appeals to both fortysomething parents and their tweens. Plus they're boffo box office. So Hollywood should take notice. Or already has:

Fourties [sic] these days skews younger, not older, and that's where Hollywood is seemingly heading in the next decade. Sure, new parents are bound to pop up to replace the young moms who have outgrown Dreamworks' animated films. Nevertheless, if this decade's enormous box office stats has taught us anything it's that people are willing to see twice as many movies as long as it keeps them feeling young and in touch with what's popular.

His point seems to be that Hollywood movies, driven by animation and explosions, are more popular than ever, but they can be even more popular if less attention is paid to kids, and the kids in all of us, than to tweens and the tween-parents in all of us. Or something.

Despite whatever argument that is, my disagreement with him comes earlier, when he talks about how popular movies have been in the 2000s:

It's evident that big blockbuster franchises reigned supreme in a way they never had before and nobody would have anticipated. And they did it bigger than any decade before. These so-called "kids' movies" pulled in huge numbers around the world.

So few words there, so much wrong.

  1. This decade, blockbusters continued to reign supreme in the way they have since the 1970s. It's nothing new.
  2. I believe this was anticipated.
  3. They did it bigger than any decade before only if you don't adjust for inflation. Once you adjust for inflation, it's a different, sadder story.

I'm sure someone, somewhere, has a spreadsheet of adjusted numbers for international box office, but inflation-adjusted domestic numbers are easily accessible online. And what do they tell us? That, at least it terms of individual films, the blockbusters of this decade blocked little and busted less.

Since the advent of sound, six of the eight decades are represented in the six highest-grossing (and inflation-adjusted) domestic films of all time:

  1. Gone with the Wind (1939): $1.4 billion
  2. Star Wars (1977): $1.2 billion
  3. The Sound of Music (1965): $1 billion
  4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $1 billion
  5. The Ten Commandments (1956): $.9 billion
  6. Titanic (1997): $.9 billion

Which decades are missing? The 1940s and the 2000s. The 1940s don't show up until no. 20, "Fantasia" ($.6 billion) while the 2000s don't show up until no. 27, "The Dark Knight" ($.5 billion). And what ranks just ahead of the biggest hit of our decade? "Thunderball," which wasn't even the biggest box-office hit of its year. It wasn't even the second-biggest box-office hit of its year. It came out in 1965 and both "The Sound of Music" and "Dr Zhivago" did better at getting our asses in the seats.

So the biggest hit of this decade ranks just behind the third-biggest-hit of 1965...and movies are more popular than ever?

I'll admit that if you toss in DVD sales and rentals, TV, PPV, etc., movies may be more popular than ever. But not in terms of box office, which is Mr. Groner's sole measure.

I'll also admit that the way blockbusters reigned supreme did change a bit this decade. But that's a discussion for another day.

Posted at 09:53 AM on Nov 20, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday September 18, 2009

Summer '09

We push in line at the picture show
For cool air and a chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed as
Younger and braver and humble and free

—Joe Henry, “Our Song”

Summer's over. We've got autumn movie posters rotating to the left and autumn movies arriving in our theaters: the semi-serious, the longshot Oscar contenders, the Halloween horror pics. Summer movie season starts the first weekend of May and ends the first weekend of September, so most postmortems have been done already. Mine is in the above quote from Joe Henry—you don't have this song? Get it—and in the overused line of Yeats' from “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” The best lack all distribution while the worst show up in 4,000 theaters opening weekend.

No, it wasn't all bad news. Four of the top five grossers are either good-enough films (“Star Trek”: $257m; “Harry Potter”: $299m), good films (“Hangover”: $273m), or great films (“Up”: $291m)—but that last, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” is big enough and dumb enough that it gets its stink on everything else. $401 million. Michael Bay wants what's in your wallet! He knows there's not much in your mind.

Glad “Basterds” ($105m) has legs—and not just Diane Kruger's. Glad “Julia” is still cookin' it up ($86m). Too bad about the docs: “Food, Inc.” ($4m) and “The Cove” (less than $1m) deserved bigger audiences, but barely trickled into theaters; par for the course for docs. “Funny People” ($51m) deserved a bigger audience, too. “Hurt Locker” ($12m), sure, but I wasn't as ga-ga over it like some, and I get why people didn't go. But “Funny People” was funny and raunchy and it died, relatively speaking. Adam Sandler's “Big Daddy” made $163 million in 1999 ($231 million, adjusted), so where were the Sandler fans? Where were you idiots? At “Transformers,” probably. Or maybe you're all big daddies now.

How about you? What did you see this summer that you recommend? What did you see that left you shaking your head? What are you going to remember? What do you wish you could forget?

Here's the image I like to carry away...

Posted at 09:41 AM on Sep 18, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday August 24, 2009

Packed House for Basterds

Early estimates have Quentin Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds” making $37 million over the weekend—$14.3, $12.9 and $10.3—but it'll be interesting to see if it's not higher. Patricia and I went last night, Sunday night, at 6:30, to one of the day's dozen shows at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle, and the place was packed. I haven't seen a theater that crowded in a while—let alone on a Sunday night when everyone was supposed to be home and getting ready for the workweek. They applauded at the end, too.

UPDATE: $38 million: $14.3, $13, $10.6. Not a big leap but a hop.

Posted at 09:59 AM on Aug 24, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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